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Published: December 4th 2008
La Rue Principale, La Patrie
Looking for consistent excitement? La Patrie is not for you....
“Where do you live?”
I offer the truth, however boring and confirm my citizenship without any supporting documentation.
“Where are you going?”
Her facial expression begged the question, Why? But she did not ask. Whatever profile they seek out for a further round of questioning, I did not fit it. At this crossing, I never do; it is why I go out of the way to enter Québec here. I volunteered some more information. “I’ll be there a few days. It’s where I go to forget, to get lost.” Her grin confirmed that my destination did not pack the punch of Montréal or Québec City.
“Are you leaving anything behind when you come back?” I was disappointed by the question and also had no idea just how much I would be leaving in Canada. I was looking forward to and have always preferred when the Canadian customs agent asks me if I am in possession of mace or pepper spray. No, I want to tell her, but check out the two barrels of fertilizer, wires, and detonators in my trunk. She never gets the chance because she will not get out of the heated booth in which
Just down the road, inthe direction of Chartierville...
she works to even bother. The booth is new; the last time I came through here the officers had to walk out of the office to question motorists entering from the United States directly into Stanstead as opposed to the more common crossing at the end of Interstate Ninety-one.
“No, not a thing. Maybe a few baseball caps and t-shirts. But that’s it.” I hand her my driver’s license, which she takes reluctantly and gives it a perfunctory glance. A note from Mom would serve me just as well if not better. In the rearview mirror, I can see her American counterpart one hundred fifty yards away rummaging through the back of a four-door sedan.
“Thank you.” And I was off into the night. It is that simple. In the era of global terrorism and international security threats, the Vermont-Québec border remains extraordinarily porous and stress-free. Nothing ever happens up here. At least for now. Behind me now are the convoys of faded blue license plates stuck between flat bed trucks of unprocessed lumber heading to join up with their families for a very long weekend. Last one out of Connecticut, please shut off the lights.
On the way to the United States border, walkable from here...
The unruffled and refined hamlet of La Patrie sits nestled at the bottom of its eastern and western slope at the crossroads of two provincial byways. It is a purely francophone community where it is useless to try to impress anyone; no one in La Patrie attempts to do the same and I hardly think the vast majority would be too successful if they did. I found this village a year ago while on a daytrip from the depressing and gloomy confines of Sherbrooke. One look at it back then and I was convinced: It needs a little work, but overall it’s what I’m looking for: Pure Québec though unrefined, and I don’t have to drive a day-and-a-half for it. I have colleagues at my job who took the same approach when they first met their husbands.
I parked my Nissan among the empty-bedded pickup trucks and trudged my single carry-on piece of luggage up to the bar to announce myself. A month ago, they hauled newly shot full-sized versions of Bullwinkle. Behind me flashed the red stop light in the same reliable but monotonous method it always has. The Hôtel La Patrie is a watering hole with clean,
Damp countryside on a dreary November day...
but tired boarding rooms upstairs. It is not for the picky, but a steal for the price of fifteen dollars a night.
“Salut, Claude!” I had already extended my hand out to meet his well before he heard my voice or he caught sight of me. We spent a good deal of time chatting during my last stay. At that time, I pegged La Patrie as my new Canadian home, and Room Five upstairs as my domicile. Having been educated in but now unenthused with Québec City recently, this is a very newsworthy event. Yet the gaunt, blue-eyed manager did not immediately recognize me although he receives few overnight guests. He most likely made the connection when he heard my tones of an English-speaker in my French. Over a drink he offered me the room of my choice. I scanned my surroundings: the same scruffy and rough characters were occupying the same barstools when I was last here. The one next to me was covered in a thick hooded sweatshirt and four days’ growth of facial hair while nursing a 700ml bottle of Coors Light with a shot of Jack Daniels. He resembled the others; all murmured to each other while facing downward. Except for the lamp above the pool table, there was very little light. It is not a place someone would walk into by accident and remain. The restaurant and lounge across the street is far more suitable for that.
“Vous jouez au pool?” was her opening line. Unlike the regulars I stood out, a reason for her to approach me. It didn’t matter much, hers is the type of personality that could strike up a conversation with an unwilling doorknob and make it work.
“Yes”, I replied in French, “but I am not very good.” I play poker just as well, making me a perfect during any Friday night game for those in search of a naïve victim. Louise, stocky and in her fifties, was sold and handed me a cue stick already chalked at the tip. Unfortunately for me the commoner’s rules in Québec differ none from Connecticut, ensuring me two excruciating yet inevitable losses of near misses, scratches, and other feats of geometric impossibilities. Louise never lost her pep. Every ball I managed to sink brought her over to give me high five. It was annoying at first, but as they continued to fall I welcomed them. I had a friendly companion; I’ll take any when I can get them.
Following the second game, she brought her drink over to me curious to what I was doing in La Patrie. I told her I was from Philadelphia, a new place of birth for me. I like to mix it up. Having been asked the question countless times on various continents, I like to mix it up a bit. Saying “Connecticut” gets boring for me and is rarely inspiring for the inquisitor as well. When a bleach blonde Californian college student once asked, I told her that I grew up on an Aleutian island. She bought it, too.
“Richard, you see him? He is my boyfriend”, she declared with a tone of frustration. The lonely man ten years her senior was mindlessly feeding a video slot machine by the front entrance. He did not move but for the repetitive motion of his fingers tapping on the keys only to result without a payout. Even though his back was to us, there was no containing how dismal he looked, like he had just watched a week straight of uninterrupted repeats of The View. He could not be any more the opposite of Louise.
“Is he OK?”
“Yes, I think he is.”
“So you come here to play pool or what?”
“I play and talk with people. He is at the machine always.”
Wow, this is depressing. “And you two are happy?”
“Sometimes, Richard.” I was under the impression that it was convenient for her to be with him, anyone, as opposed to being alone. As winter is a painful and prolonged misery in Québec, it must be better to be in someone’s company at her age than to undergo human isolation.
“His health. It is not good.”
“What is it?”
Louise tried to utter the words in English, but they did not come. She reverted to French. “Prostate cancer.”
“Oh”, I chirped. How do I recover from this awkward moment? But I trudged on. “Is it serious? He is stable?” I was referring to his physical well being.
“Yes, it will not end him soon.” I was relieved.
But Louise had more to add. “Mais, Richard…he can’t. He can’t. At all.”
“You know…he can’t…what he should be able to do.”
It sunk in after an awkward delay. For Louise, winters are very long and unsatisfying indeed.
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